Faculty impact on students’ preparation for life after college

In our new senior survey we included two items that serve as useful measures of an Augustana education.

  • “If you could relive your college decision, would you choose Augustana again?”  (five response options from “definitely no” to “definitely yes;” scored 1 to 5)
  • “I am certain that my post-graduate plans are a good fit for who I am right now and where I want my life to go.”  (five response options from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree;” scored 1 to 5)

While these two items should not be misconstrued (and were not intended to function) as a comprehensive accounting of our success or failure, they do provide some sense of 1) the value our students place on their Augustana experience, and 2) the impact of that experience on their immediate future.  Here are the average scores from our May 2012 graduates.

Question

# of Responses

Mean

Std. Deviation

Certainty of fit regarding post-graduate plans

497

4.06

0.888

Likelihood of choosing Augustana again

491

4.19

0.895

Even though there might be an audience for whom these scores are particularly important (perspective students, board members, accrediting organizations, etc.), for those of us engaged in the rough-and-tumble work of educating, these numbers don’t tell us much about how we might improve what we do.  For this purpose we need a different type of analysis that tests the relationship between experiences and outcomes.  Furthermore, we must keep in mind that the implications of whatever we find are inevitably going to be nuanced, complicated, and potentially booby-trapped.  One of the critical and maddening mistakes that folks often make in translating student-derived data into actionable change is that they too easily succumb to the belief that there exists a magic wand – or worse still, that they are the magician.

It turns out that among this most recent group of graduates there were four specific student experiences that increased the likelihood of a student saying that they “definitely” would choose Augustana again and that they “strongly agree” that their post-graduate plans are a good fit.  I’ll spare the technical stuff for the sake of the statistophobic (you know who you are!); let me just note that we utilized several statistical procedures to give us a legitimate degree of confidence in the validity of our findings.  Of course, if you really want to know all of the gory details, just shoot me an email or post a comment below.

One of those influential experiences involves the role of faculty in helping students achieve their post-graduate plans. Students were asked to respond to this statement:

“Faculty in this major knew how to help me prepare to achieve my post-graduate plans.”  (five response options from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree;” scored 1 to 5)

Students’ responses to this question produced a statistically significant positive effect on both outcome questions.  In other words, as students’ belief that “faculty in their major knew how to help them prepare to achieve their post-graduate plans” increased, the likelihood of 1) definitely choosing Augustana again, and 2) being very certain that their post-graduate plans were a good fit went up.

So how do we translate this into plausible and sustainable improvement?  It would be easy to resort to naive platitudes (“Hey everyone – prepare your students better, ok?”).  Instead, I’d like to suggest three interconnected ideas that might help us deconstruct the nature of faculty influence on students’ post-graduate preparations and maybe identify a few simple ways to enhance your students’ preparation for life after college.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

The lines connecting a given major to a particular career vary and blur considerably across disciplines.  For example, the array of post-graduate plans among humanities majors might seem almost infinite compared to those among business or education majors.  However, we can help students think about connecting their career aspirations to their day-to-day and term-by-term actions so that they are better positioned to seek out the right experiences, ask the right questions, and make the right impression when the opportunity arrives.  Simply asking students to articulate these connections at the very least encourages them to seek their own answers; and in the process increases your impact on their successful preparation.

You Don’t Have to Know Everything Yourself

Just as the message can get lost in the delivery, so too can our delivery accentuate the spirit of our message.  When we take the initiative to direct students to other campus offices that can help them think about and prepare to achieve their post-graduate plans (even when students haven’t overtly asked for help), we express the degree to which we want to help our students succeed.  Not only does this effort help students find practical and individualized information, it also increases the likelihood that students will see faculty as go-to resources for other connections that will help them make the most of their college experience.

From Whence Do Your Students Come?

We all have stories of discovering the extent to which students don’t know what they don’t know.  In many cases, this knowledge gap is shaped by prior assumptions that students bring with them to college.  Maybe they’re from a small town.  Maybe they’re a veteran.  Maybe they’ve just transferred from another school.  Knowing these kinds of details about our students’ background can provide important insights into why someone might not pursue participation in an experience that would seem to be ideal for them.  This knowledge can also help us identify the combination of experiences that best fits each student – but we will never be able to help those students connect the dots if we don’t understand the context from whence they come to college.

As you work with your students this week, remember that they don’t just see you as professor – they see you as a guide.

Make it a good day,

Mark

What’s in a name?

When I first floated the idea of a weekly column, everyone in the Dean’s office seemed to be on board.  But when I proposed calling it “Delicious Ambiguity,” I got more than a few funny looks.  Although these looks could have been a mere byproduct of the low-grade bewilderment that I normally inspire, let’s just say for the sake of argument that they were largely triggered by the apparent paradox of a column written by the measurement guy that seems to advocate winging it.  So let me tell you a little bit about the origins of the phrase “Delicious Ambiguity” and why I think it embodies the real purpose of Institutional Research and Assessment.

This particular phrase is part of a longer quote from Gilda Radner – a brilliant improvisational comedian and one of the early stars of Saturday Night Live.  The line goes like this:

“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.  Delicious Ambiguity.”

For those of you who chose a career in academia specifically to reduce ambiguity, this statement probably inspires a measure of discomfort.  And there is a part of me that admittedly finds some solace in the task of isolating statistically significant “truths.”  I suppose I could have named this column “Bland Certainty,”  but – in addition to single-handedly squelching reader interest – such a title would suggest that my only role at Augustana is to provide final answers – nuggets of fact that function like the period at the end of a sentence.

Radner’s view of life is even more intriguing because she wrote this sentence as her body succumbed to cancer.  For me, her words exemplify intentional – if not stubborn – optimism in the face of darkly discouraging odds.  I have seen this trait repeatedly demonstrated in many of you over the last several years as you have committed yourself to help a particular student even as that student seems entirely disinterested in  learning.

Some have asserted that a college education is a black box; some good can happen, some good does happen – we just don’t know how it happens.  On the contrary, we actually know a lot about how student learning and development happens – it’s just that student learning doesn’t work like an assembly line.  Instead, student learning is like a budding organism that depends on the conduciveness of its environment; a condition that emerges through the interaction between the learner and the learning context.  And because both of these factors perpetually influence each other, we are most successful in our work to the degree that we know which educational ingredients to introduce, how to introduce them, and when to stir them into the mix.  The exact sequence of the student learning process is, by its very nature, ambiguous because it is unique to each individual learner.

In my mind, the act of educating is deeply satisfying precisely because of its unpredictability.  Knowing that we can make a profound difference in a young person’s life – a difference that will ripple forward and touch the lives of many more long after a student graduates – has driven many of us to extraordinary effort and sacrifice even as the ultimate outcome remains admittedly unknown.  What’s more, we look forward to that moment when our perseverance suddenly sparks a flicker of unexpected light that we know increases the likelihood – no matter how small – that this person will blossom into the life-long student we believe they can be.

The purpose of collecting educational data should be to propel us – the teacher and the student – through this unpredictability, to help us navigate the uncertainty that comes with a process that is so utterly dependent upon the perpetually reconstituted synergy between teacher and student.  The primary role of Institutional Research and Assessment is to help us figure out the very best ways to cultivate – and in just the right ways – manipulate this process.  The evidence of our success isn’t a result at the end of this process.  The evidence of our success is the process.  And pooling our collective expertise, if we focus on cultivating the quality, depth, and inclusiveness of that process, it isn’t outlandish at all to believe that our efforts can put our students on a path that someday just might change the world.

To me; this is delicious ambiguity.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Look mom, it’s a blog!

Hi everybody,

Yes, its true.  What was once a simple column has now turned into a blog.

What difference will it make?  None.  This column will focus on the same topics that it has explored in the past.  Sometimes I’ll talk about an interesting finding from our student data, sometimes I’ll test a claim that has been made publicly, and sometimes I’ll muse about the various tensions that arise when one seriously commits to striving for perpetual improvement.

Yes, I’ll continue to be snarky from time to time.  But now, you can call me on it in the comments section and point out my flaws, my unsubstantiated leaps, or my bad grammar for all to see.  Of course, you can also throw me a bone everyone once in a while and tell me what you liked or what made you stop and think for a second or two.

Mostly, I hope you’ll add your perspective and make this blog a conversation dedicated to thinking about our work and making change for the better.

So here it is . . . Delicious Ambiguity.  Stay hungry, my friends.

Make it a good day,

Mark